by Members of the Earth Ministry Team
Recently, the Earth Ministry Team reviewed Bill Gates’ book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” and his view of solutions we have and breakthroughs we need. It was a good platform for discussion over the wintertime. We present a summary with the biggest take-aways of the book: some facts, figures and action plans. All views are those of Bill Gates, with some comments and professional perspective offered by Al Johnson on Gates’ themes concerning agriculture.
The book begins with Gates’ premise that we must get from the alarming production of 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year to zero. Yes, zero! The rest of the book explores why we must get to zero and how we can do this.
Why Zero ( or Net Zero) Greenhouse Gas Emission?
• Urgent and major actions needed. The current very limited reductions will not avoid excessive warming (>1.5 degrees C) and climate disaster.
• Doing nothing is predicted to result in a 4 degree C temperature change by 2080.
• Bathtub analogy: when filling up a bathtub, even if flow is reduced, the bathtub will eventually overflow. We are putting 51 billion tons in earth’s bathtub every year and 1/5th of carbon dioxide emissions remain after 10,000 years, so minor reductions will not stop the bathtub from overflowing. We need to turn off the tap.
• If we continue with only minor reductions, impacts will far exceed today’s consequences. We will see more excessive heat (killing people, animals, crops), flooding, droughts, wildfires, sea level rise, loss of coral reefs, and increase in diseases including global mortality similar to COVID in 2020.
• Notably, the 2020 worldwide pandemic shut down much of the world, but only temporarily reduced emissions by 5%. We need to get to zero.
This Will Be Hard: Greenhouse Gas-Producing Projects are Used in Many Ways and are All Around Us
• Oil at $1/gallon is cheaper than soda at $2.85/gallon; the challenge is to find incentives for the $5 trillion dollar a year industry and replace fossil fuels cheaply.
• Growth in developing countries is increasing; we need to make “climbing the ladder” possible for low-income population without making climate change worse.
• While global cooperation is difficult, more than 190 countries signed the Paris Agreement to limit emissions. We need to create public policies that push transitions and breakthroughs in science and energy. Don’t despair!
Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation:
How much of the 51 billion tons are we talking about? What’s your plan for cement? How much power are talking about? How much space do you need? and How much is this going to cost?
• Generating electricity produces 25% of greenhouse gases; we need to shift to clean electricity.
• Prices of fossil fuels don’t reflect the environmental damage, so they SEEM cheaper.
• “Green Premiums” or the true, additional costs provide a lens for considering options, which is especially important for middle income countries.
How We Plug In
• The need for clean electricity is growing worldwide.
• Emissions are also growing worldwide, especially in developing countries.
• We need power grids that store and deliver zero-carbon electricity [solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear] reliably from where and when they are generated to where and when they are needed.
How We Make Things
• Cement, Steel, Glass, as essential to modern life as electricity, are major sources of CO2. Making 1 ton of steel produces 1.8 tons of CO2; 1 ton of cement makes 1 ton of CO2; Plastics retain half of their carbon, and take hundreds of years to degrade.
• Recommendations to reduce manufacturing emissions (much innovation is needed):
electrify every process; get electricity from a decarbonized power grid; use carbon capture to absorb remaining emissions; and use materials more efficiently.
How We Grow Things – with comments by Al Johnson (Gardener, Farmer & Agricultural Teacher for 50 years)
• Gates believes that raising livestock is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and suggests eating less meat and introducing breed improvements. Comment: He omits any mention that grazing of ruminants (as opposed to livestock raised in feedlots) sequesters significant amounts of CO2 derived carbon in pasture soils.
• Chemical fertilizers are needed to feed the world. Comment: Gates does not mention that dependence on these can reduce carbon sequestering soil organic matter which reduces water absorption, increasing risk of erosion and need for irrigation, and also does not include regenerative farming practices which build soil health for long term productivity.
• Gates criticizes growing crops on prime farmland for ethanol production and forestry management practices such as cutting down the Brazilian rainforest for cattle ranches.
How We Get Around
• Gates recommends using electricity (e.g., generated by solar and wind) to run passenger cars and trucks, light-duty trucks and buses. For other transportation, such as cargo trucks, trains, airplanes and container ships, he recommends innovation to bring down the price of alternative fuels.
• One example of alternative fuels is paper-product waste that may be converted to an ethanol or similar fuel.
• A major challenge with the heaviest vehicles is that the state-of-the-art batteries are (comparatively) very heavy and they need too-frequent charging.
How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm
• How we keep cool or warm accounts for 7% of global emissions. In homes, swapping to an electric heat pump will save money on furnace use.
• Air conditioning, used by 90% of Americans, is one of the biggest energy uses.
• We need to implement standards that force air conditioner companies to use less harmful cooling materials and to cut out fluorine gases.
• We need to electrify as much we can, with increased efficiency and use of green technology, replacing gas-powered furnaces and water heaters.
Adapting to a Warmer World
• To help farmers manage the risks associated with severe weather conditions, Gates suggests governments make available weather-based agriculture insurance and social security systems to recover losses.
• A focus should be on helping the most vulnerable including women farmers.
• Government responses to disaster relief should have standards that ensure rebuilding to withstand climate related challenges.
• Urban planning should respond to climate changes and “climate -proof” communities through infrastructure improvements and building cooling centers to deal with the extreme heat.
• We need to shore up our natural resources and ecosystems. For example, growing mangrove forests along coastlines would reduce storm surges and flooding as well as protect fish habitats, and would be cheaper than building breakwaters.
• As drinking water supplies diminish from droughts, new technologies can be used to extract and purify water from other sources.
• Develop and implement geo-engineering methods to bring down the earth’s temperature as soon as possible.
Why Government Policies Matter
- Government (federal, state, local) has much experience and success in regulating traditional air pollutants ( e.g., lead), and energy (e.g., fuel efficiency standards), and now needs to turn to zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions.
- Tools require: establishing a Vision – a plan with milestones and indicators; Regulations ( e.g., carbon emissions from power plants, energy standards for buildings); Research – government needs to be the main investor in new zero carbon technologies; Government incentives ( e.g., tax credits) for new green technologies; Strategies to make carbon emitting more expensive (e.g., carbon pricing); Green Government Procurement, Public information dissemination on green alternatives; Protection of carbon sinks ( e.g., forests, soils).
- Government must focus on “hard” things, like electricity storage, greener cement, steel, and fertilizer, while accelerating “easy” things, like electric vehicles, solar and wind.
A Plan for Getting to Zero
• Governments at all levels must reduce barriers to incentivize and accelerate innovations, help drive costs down and thus encourage their adoption by the public.
Conclusion: What Each of Us Can Do
• Contact your local and national elected officials, run for office yourself.
• Sign up for a green pricing program with your electric utility company.
• Reduce your home’s emissions.
• Try a plant-based burger.
• If you own a business, support researchers in developing innovative products.
• As an employer, set up an internal carbon tax, promote new ideas in low-carbon research and development and work with government to influence the policy making process.